Oh, man, I remember being middle school-aged and what an absolute mess my friends and I could be, falling out with each other over things that seemed insurmountable back then but are such trifles in retrospect, and preferring to jump to (usually depressing, dramatic) conclusions instead of actually communicating with one another. I do not miss those days at all, and have probably sublimated more than I recall, but oh how memories of that time came roaring back to me while reading this sharply observed graphic novel of a 12 year-old trying to get out from under her popular big brother’s shadow. Thank goodness I was at least the eldest, and didn’t have to suffer that indignity on top of all the rest of the drama!
Grace Bailey is two years younger than her older brother, handsome, athletic, popular Kyle. All her life, she feels like she’s been playing second fiddle to him. Even her parents have a mostly unconscious bias toward their gregarious, sunny older child. Grace is an introvert who mostly likes playing video games and hanging out with her two best friends, Jay and Amy. Amy is the little sister of Andrew, one of Kyle’s best friends, and is obsessed with KPop bands. Jay, the quietest member of their trio, loves board games. She’s also nurtured a huge crush on Kyle for years, and Amy is super enthusiastic about finally pushing the two of them together now that they’re all in middle school. Grace is significantly more lukewarm to the idea, mostly because she thinks her brother sucks and doesn’t deserve sweet, reserved Jay.
A sleepover of both Baileys’ friend groups at Amy and Andrew’s house ends in a huge fight between the girls. Things are spoken that can’t be unsaid. The girls stop spending time together, leaving Grace especially feeling lonely and bereft. But when Grace is adopted by a popular older classmate, Cam, she thinks things are starting to look up for her social prospects. She even winds up confiding in Cam how she and Amy fell out, leading Cam to engage in several questionable mean girl tactics against Amy. Grace is too relieved to have a new friend to say anything, even tho she knows that what Cam is doing isn’t right. But what will she do when she discovers Cam’s real motivations for befriending her?
Kyle’s Little Sister unerringly captures the turmoil of young adolescence, and how relationships form and fall apart and come back together. I loved how it showed so clearly the pettiness but also the deep feeling involved in all these kerfuffles. I also enjoyed how this depiction of middle schoolers wasn’t at all cliched or simplistic. The art is well suited to its story, tho I did have a bit of trouble telling the difference between the guys at first. The girls, tho, are all easy to distinguish from one another, with an expressiveness that makes each girl both relatable and indelible. The only thing I wish this book had done differently was put in more Asian characters than just the KPop group members. It seemed a little weird that none of the actual cast was Asian, given that the author is.
This graphic novel is the perfect read for any kid trying to navigate the social wilderness of middle school, or for any adult who wants to reflect vicariously on those days. It certainly made me think about things that haven’t crossed my mind in a good, long time, but that’s for the better overall, I think.
Kyle’s Little Sister by BonHyung Jeong will be published tomorrow June 22 2021 by JY and is available from all good booksellers, including